There was a four letter F-word that was never spoken in my house growing up. My Dad had long ago determined this was not a home where that word was a part of our daily vocabulary and especially not part of our daily meals. Fish was not something my Dad cared for and as a result growing up we rarely ate it.
When I started working at our family cooking school, I noticed my Mom consistently had a sellout class around the holiday season. The class, entitled Italian Christmas Eve, consisted of seven fish dishes. I was intrigued. We were Italian, we celebrated the Christmas Eve Vigil, we refrained from meat, and yet we never had fish, let alone seven in one meal. I decided to learn what this tradition was all about.
For practicing Roman Catholic Italians, Christmas Eve is as important a holiday as Christmas. Our family would bundle up in our Christmas outfits (matching velvet dresses, white stockings, and patent leather mary janes for me and my sisters until junior high) and pile in the car for midnight mass at Holy Rosary Church in Little Italy. Father Minigatto and then, in later years, Father Rocco would give the homily partly in Italian and partly in English, and we children would struggle to stay awake until the great singing of “Tu Scendi dalle Stelle” at the end of the mass (an awesome Italian Christmas song). Then we would listen to American Christmas songs on the radio as we drove snowy Mayfield Road home to Geauga County.
Our Christmas Eve feast with family and friends consisted of multiple meatless appetizers in honor of the “fasting” during the Eve Vigil. Snacking on lots of appetizers was somehow not eating a meal and so deemed okay.
In other Italian American families, the fasting takes the form of enjoying fish dishes. This tradition, born in Southern Italy, grew in great popularity here in the States and has become the Feast of the Seven Fishes in many homes.
As Italy is a peninsula, and fish a staple of many Italian diets, especially south of Rome, those honoring the meatless Vigil would create a meal around the readily available and often more economical fish. Eel, baccala (salted cod), and squid were the reigning top three on the menu in the form of cold seafood salads or simply breaded and fried in olive oil.
Depending on each family’s location, availability of fish varieties, and traditions, the menu can vary. Although most celebrate seven dishes in honor of the Seven Sacraments, some go all out with 11 or 13 fish dishes for the meal.
This year, it is my turn to host our family’s Christmas Eve meal before Mass. I think I may try some of Mom’s recipes for the Seven Fishes in my buffet spread. And as for Dad, like he says: “my home, my rules,” so I’ll cut him up some veggies and cheese.